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How Galileo’s 17th-century theology can help the church better understand gender today


Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Today’s post is from guest contributor Craig A. Ford (he/him), an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. He also serves on the faculty of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s only Catholic Historically Black College or University (HBCU). He writes about topics at the intersection of gender, race, sexuality and the Catholic moral tradition. Craig recently spoke as part of the New Ways Ministry panel: “What Dignitas Infinita Ignored: Perspectives on LGBTQ+ Dignity,” available here.

About four months ago I wrote an article entitled “Our new Galileo affair‘ that was published in the theology magazine Horizons. The core of his argument was this: the actions taken by the Vatican today regarding sexual orientation and gender identity resemble, uncomfortably, the official statements and actions taken by the Vatican in the 17th century.e century against astronomer Galileo Galilei. The actions against Galileo are among the most embarrassing in the history of the Church. Galileo was condemned as a heretic because he believed – correctly, as we now know – that the sun is at the center of our planetary system, while the Earth and all the other planets revolve around it. The Vatican must not make the same mistakes as in the 17e century again in the 21st.

Many of us are familiar with Galileo’s wrongful conviction, but perhaps less known is Galileo’s extremely insightful statement. theological argument. This theological argument was necessary when science was still developing, to convince others why it would be unwise for the Vatican to prematurely condemn heliocentrism. This would not be an easy task, since (1) the dominant model at the time, Ptolemy’s geocentric system, with the Earth at the center of the planetary system, was widely accepted as a scientific model, and since (2) many people believed that geocentrism was supported by Scripture (e.g. Ecclesiastes 1:5 and Joshua 10:12-13). Galileo had to deploy his theological arguments both against the accepted science of the time and against what was considered God’s revelation in Sacred Scripture.

Relying on the authority of Saint Augustine, the most influential theologian in the Western Christian world, Galileo argued essentially two things. First, that science and revelation are two paths to a single truth about the world God created. So ultimately they cannot contradict each other. And second, in cases where the science is underdeveloped be able to Although it may seem to contradict the historically established teachings of the Church, the prudential path points to not preemptively discrediting the scientific process. Instead, prudence counsels patience. Augustine put it this way:

“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision… different interpretations are sometimes possible without detracting from the faith we have received. In such a case we must not act rashly and take our position so firmly that, if further progress in the search for the truth rightly undermines this position, we too will perish with it.” (Augustine, The literal interpretation of Genesis1.18.37)

And Galileo, applying Augustine’s reasoning to his own situation, echoed Augustine in the following way:

“I should think it would be right to first establish the facts, that they may guide us in finding the true meaning of the Bible; however, this would prove to be absolutely consistent with proven facts At first sight the words would sound different, since two truths cannot contradict each other.” (Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”)

We know from the Vatican’s resistance that Galileo was unconvincing. Today we are once again witnessing the Vatican’s defiance when it comes to issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. One has only to turn to recent documents such as Dignitas Infinita And Fiducia Supplicans to see that this is the case. But given how many theologians and philosophers affirm the givenness and goodness of homosexuality and trans identities—and furthermore, given how many scientists do the same—I think those of us who call for a full embrace of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters will prove to be am right too. The lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people expand the divine light in this world; they don’t reduce it.

In addressing homosexuality and trans identity, the Church must learn a lesson from its own past – and not a drastic one at that. The lesson, as Augustine and Galileo advise, is to adopt a listening attitude. The Church should embrace the “grace of self-doubt,” as Margaret Farley offers in her essay: “Ethics, ecclesiology and the grace of self-doubt.” It should embrace the wisdom offered by the late Richard Gaillardetz in his essay “Power and authority in the church: Because “if the Church is a pilgrim church,” as we see it described in Lumen Gentium No. 46, then “the official teachers must share in that pilgrim status.”

In other words, the lesson is to continue the process of listening and learning and let the judgments rest. In his Speech from 1992 on the Galileo affair, John Paul II acknowledged that Galileo had ‘shown more perceptive in this respect than the theologians who opposed him’. Nothing less is owed to the memory of Galileo, and nothing less is owed to LGBTQ+ people whose lives and loves testify to the goodness of the God who created the sun, moon and stars to which Galileo dedicated his life.

Craig A. Ford, May 15, 2024